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Robert Swan speaks at World Resources Institute

Earlier this week, Robert Swan, Order of the British Empire and renowned environmentalist, spoke in Washington D.C., about his treks to both the North and South Poles. Robertswan2041  

Swan says we can’t save the planet by sending emails to each other. Nor can we accomplish much with negativity and a lack of inspiration. To be taken seriously, we must show commitment. 

As an example of commitment, he spoke about what it took him to get to and from the South Pole, a dream he had had since he was 11. At age 20 Swan attempted to raise $5 million for that trek to the South Pole. He had hoped the funds would take him two weeks to raise; instead, it took him seven years. 

Eventually, he bought a ship, assembled a team, and bought the appropriate gear for a year in Antarctica. He and four other men spent five and a half months in a small base in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, planning their 900 mile trek to the pole. Upon arriving at the pole in January of 1986, they learned their ship they had planned to sail back to New Zealand had been crushed by an iceberg only minutes before they arrived. 

As per a promise Swan had made to his “patron” Jacques Cousteau, the team left Antarctica tidy, even if it meant at one point hauling 17 pounds of garbage along with their gear. So they, their gear, and their rubbish had reached the South Pole, without a way home. 

Swan says they were proud of what they did because they said they were going to do it, despite assurances from experts that they would die trying to reach the South Pole on foot. They had no radio, no GPS. They used a compass, a watch, and a sextant to navigate themselves to the South Pole, using jet aviation fuel to melt the ice. 

Swan commandeered a plane to retrieve them and came back the following year with another vessel to get the rest of the team, the gear, and their rubbish.

The loss of his ship, much like Ernest Shackleton’s infamous loss of the Endurance, separated Swan’s team and delivered an emotional, physical, and financial blow. For some members of the team, the loss of the ship meant another year in Antarctica. For Swan, it meant the loss of his collateral to pay back the bank loan that had made the expedition possible. However, he said, he had to “finish the job for Jacques Cousteau.” 

In addition to “cleaning rubbish and polishing penguins,” Swan says to save Antarctica he must focus on energy saving and renewable energy to protect the environment. Swan established 2041, whose mission is to protect “the last unspoilt wilderness of Earth, Antarctica.” The organization also seeks to “inform, engage, and inspire” young people to be involved in implementing sustainable business and development for the future. 

Next year Swan is leading a group from the South Pole to the edge of Antarctica, exclusively using renewable energy. No jet fuel to melt the ice this time. Swan still has not figured out how this trek will be carried out successfully, but is working with engineers and other scientists to invent and test new mechanisms that will ensure their survival. Because he and his group will be moving away from the center of the landmass, they will be able to use wind to carry them across the ice to the sea, decreasing the amount of time the trip will take.

Swan has built an education center in Antarctica, which is run entirely on renewable energy for visitors from around the world to visit, because the Antarctic is owned by everyone. We are all responsible for the preservation of the communal landmass.

Swan does not promote a singular energy source for the world’s energy crisis. Instead, he says, it will be an “energy mix that will bring us forward.” He says China and India, with their booming populations, will be the solution to the energy problem. “If we don’t get it right there,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what we do here,” in the Western world. 

Swan equates the Arctic and the Antarctic to canaries in the coal mine. If we listen, Swan says, we’ll be able to hear that the poles are telling us they are “melting a bit too fast.” He says, even if the cynics of humanity’s affect of global climate change are correct, we ought to fight to protect the environment because we ought to do what is right when we have the chance. 

Though Swan has walked to both poles, he says that the Arctic is “nearly a lost cause”. Decades ago, ships couldn’t reach it, because the ice was so thick. Now, ships have easier access through the ice, increasing the traffic through the area, and increasing the negative impact. Swan predicts that eventually wars will be fought over water, but first wars will be fought over the Arctic. “People are starting to claim it,” he says. 

In juxtaposition, Antarctica is one of the hardest places to get to. In addition to crossing very rough seas, boats must attempt to navigate the 2 percent of the area that is “ice-free.” Swan says we must learn the lessons from the Arctic in order to protect the Antarctic. 

In 2041, the Antarctic Treaty, which essentially says that no one and thus everyone owns Antarctica, will be up for review. The treaty said that Antarctica is a land of science and peace. Swan hopes that the land will remain as such, and that hopefully other disputes over land and policy may be solved in a similar way. 

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” Swan says. 

-- By Rosie Mansfield

Photo courtesy 2041



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